By Dirk Vinlove
Retyped by permission from:
Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management Magazine.
Feb/March.1999: 5 - 7, 18 - 19, 30.
WHY CAN’T WE
BUILD WITH THEM?
In our very first issue back in 1997, columnist
Gregg Mackey sounded a call that caught many a sawyer’s attention as surely as
the sound of a freshly sharpened band blade hitting a nail. He wrote:
In some places it is still
lawful to build a house
using lumber right off your land, but in most places
the Northeast, and in much of the country, the fact is,
you are a criminal if
Gregg was talking about something
many sawyers know all too well. Because of the softwood lumber you saw to frame
a home isn’t graded and stamped by an official grader, some building inspectors
will not sign off on a building permit, and you can not legally build a house
with the lumber off your mill.
Soon after that column, the calls and letters
started coming in. Some told horror stories of building inspectors who didn’t
know wood from wax beans; others told of how you could indeed build your own
home-legally-out of lumber coming off your own mill.
It all boiled down to two questions: Can you
build a home for yourself out of lumber coming off your own portable sawmill?
And can you legally sell construction lumber for someone else to build a home?
The answers vary from state to state, and in
many cases, from town to town. First, some history.
Many people across the country remember growing
up in an old family farmhouse that had been built a generation or two before
them, either by a family member, or someone the family knew. It was a fairly
simple process back then: you put up some money for lumber at a sawmill not too
far away, the lumber was delivered, and the house was built. No building
inspectors, no building permits, no fees.
That began to change in the 1950s as many of
the smaller local sawmills began to shut down, and larger commercial mills
became the rule. No longer was there a local sawyer to supply lumber. Right
around that time, lumber manufacturer’s associations such as the Southern Pine
Inspection Bureau, Western Pine Inspection Bureau, Northeastern Lumber
Manufacturer’s Association and the North American Hardwood Association became
more prominent. These private trade groups created “stamps” for lumber to show
it came from member mills, and that it was graded and certified for use in
certain applications by a grader licensed by the association.
Then came the Building Officials Code
Administration rules, commonly known as the “BOCA Codes.” The federal government
adopted the rules from the private organization, and today, various forms of
these building rules are used in each state across the country.
Not that they were a bad thing.
“The BOCA codes are minimum standards that were
developed to protect the health, safety and welfare of people living in houses,”
said Mark Heath, a Bangor, Maine building inspector. “I mean, how would you like
it if a building contractor came out and built a house for you out 2x2s?”
But well-meaning rules to protect the public
often have the opposite effect. Just ask Steve Ruggles, a contractor near
Colorado Springs, what happened when he tried to build a large shop out of
lumber he pulled off his Wood-Mizer.
“I went to get my permit, and made the mistake
of telling them I planned to use native lumber,” Steve said. “The inspector said
unless it was graded and stamped I couldn’t use it in the frame of a structure
larger than 120 square feet."
“I threw a fit. It had been graded by me. That
didn’t convince them and I had to go buy $900 worth of lumber that I didn’t
What really burned Steve is that he’s been
around wood his whole life, has been sawing for four years, and ran his own log
cabin building business from 1981 to 1995. He was sawing lodge pole pine, spruce
and ponderosa pine at the time to 2-inch by 4-inch measurements.
“What I was sawing was of far better quality
than the junk I had to buy at the lumber yard.” Steve said. “I have been
approached by several individuals to buy my lumber for construction. I only sell
what I consider to be #1 and #2 grades. Guess what; one guy paid a grader $750,
got on a waiting list, and someone came out to grade the lumber I sold him. It
all came out #1 or #2.”
Steve says builders in his area are
understandably worried about buying native lumber, but if the rules were
relaxed, he knows many of the 16 other building contractors in his area would be
more than happy to buy native lumber.
“I could quit, buy another saw and hire another
sawyer and keep us all busy if I could sell softwood construction lumber,” Steve
Steve isn’t the only one to run afoul of the
local building inspector.
Roger McCall and his wife Lavinia in South
Carolina had plans to build a house out of lumber coming off their Wood-Mizer on
180 acres of land they had purchased. Once done with the first project, they
hoped to build a home on the same land for each of their two boys, who work with
Roger in his excavating business.
Then the McCalls went to the local building
inspector to discuss their plans. “We hadn’t quite got to the point where we
were actually going to do the building yet, but we were starting to plan,”
Lavinia said. That’s when they ran up against the young inspector, who said they
couldn’t build without stamped lumber.
“It was really disappointing,” Lavinia said.
“You like to think there are ways to get around it, so we didn’t lose all hope.
I had heard that the younger inspectors tend to go by the book, and I guess
that’s what happened to us.”
How to Get Your Home Built
If you want to use your own lumber for structural building, you NEED
to educate and work with your local officials early, not after you have a house
framed. Here are some practical steps to take before you start pounding nails.
- Contact your state forestry office. Most states have some sort of
utilization forester whose job it is to keep an eye on wood fiber uses and
resources in the state. Ask that person if there are any rules in your
state allowing for the use of native, unstamped lumber in structural
- Talk to the lumber trade group in your area, such as the Northeast
Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, Western Pine Inspection Bureau, or
Southern Pine Inspection Bureau about how you might get your structural
lumber graded BEFORE a building inspector comes out. There are stories of
a grader stamping a building permit application after visiting a home that
was completely framed, after simply scanning the skeleton and approving
the lumber as #2 or better. There may be significant costs involved and
you’ll likely be put on a waiting list, but it’s better than being told
you can’t build.
- Go and meet your building inspector well before you plan to build.
Often times, a little education goes a long way. Ask the inspector to look
carefully at the BOCA codes for “alternative" building materials, and for
the loopholes that allow for a judgment call on the inspector’s part.
Bring in a nice 2x4 as an example of what you will be using, and compare
that to a 1 ½ x3 ½ stud you picked out of the local lumber yard bin,
complete with its stamp.
- As a last resort, call your local state legislative representative and
ask him or her to look into why you can’t use your state’s trees, that you
sawed yourself, for your own home construction. Maybe your state will be
the next with a “native lumber” rule.
The McCalls are still determined to get their
houses built, and are working to find a way to do so. They have been around wood
for a long time, and got into smaller mills “because we were tired of seeing
good trees dumped into a landfill.” They have been sawing with their Wood-Mizer
for about seven years, after retiring a hand-set circle mill that “the boys were
sure glad to see go,” Lavinia said.
“I love wood. We want to do the houses in bevel
siding, pine floors, slat ceilings, the whole bit.”
And listening to Lavinia McCall, the common
sense of someone who has been around wood comes through.
“You know we are going to build the house
strong. You go to a lumber yard and get a 2x4 that’s 1 ½ x 3 ½. Our 2x4s are
going to be 2x4s, and the wood that’s going into them is going to be real good
Native Lumber Laws
The fact has not escaped everyone, and citizen
action in recent years has led to the creation of “Native Lumber” laws in some
In New York state, an Unmarked Structural
Lumber rule is now 12 years old, and is working well, said Bruce Williamson,
Associate Forester for New York’s Department of Conservation.
On March 25, 1986 an amendment to the statewide
building code was adopted to allow “unmarked structural lumber,” in “dwellings
not exceeding three stories in height and other buildings not exceeding 10,000
square feet or 35 feet in height,” subject to the following conditions:
“More and more sawmill owners are familiar with it (native lumber amendment),
but I wonder how many builders are still thinking they cannot use native lumber
as structural material,” Williamson said.
The local Resource,
Conservation and Development Council has published guidebooks that are sent to
New York sawyers who might benefit from the rule. Williamson doesn’t believe
more legislative rule making is needed in New York around native lumber, just
more education. And part of that education has to be on the part of the sawyers
trying to sell construction lumber.
“The producers have to
figure out how to make shopping with them better than with Home Depot,”
Williamson said. “It takes some nifty marketing, but that’s what they have to do
if they want to sell their lumber.”
To make the rule work, New
York legislators tied the native lumber directly to the person or mill that
produced it. When construction lumber is sold, the person selling it has to sign
a statement saying they believe the lumber is #2 grade or better, and they must
state in plain terms that the lumber is unstamped. That way, should a building
collapse in a pile of wormy studs, there is a trail of liability.
“That’s the way it should
be,” Williamson said. “If you are going to sell a product you have to be ready
to stand behind it. If you aren’t, you shouldn’t be in business to begin with.”
The other wrinkle to New
York’s rule is that while the state allows inspectors to approve homes built
with local lumber, it does not require them to. Williamson said he has heard of
building inspectors rejecting native lumber, but the situation appears to be
“I’m not hearing it as
much as I have in the past. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the market has
figured it out.”
Another reason is that the
New York rule has made it easy for building inspectors.
“More often than not, a
building inspector is unwilling to stick their neck out,” Williamson said. “I
mean, they may only get a handful of houses a year that have any local lumber in
them, so they are not used to seeing that. They also may not be aware of what it
takes to make lumber, and once they see it on a local level, they have no
problem with it.”
But there are still
“Local officials may say
they won’t approve homes with local lumber, and we can’t do much about that
until a specific case comes up,” Williamson said. “Then all it usually takes is
education by us or the local mill, and the problem is solved.”
- The producing mill must sell or provide the lumber
directly to the ultimate consumer or his contract builder, and;
- The producing mill must certify in writing to the consumer or builder
that the lumber meets or exceeds grade #2 (and that “certificate” must be
filed with the building permit application).
New Hampshire is another state which has passed a native lumber law.
Dale Riley of Riley Brothers Lumber in New Hampshire wrote in soon after Gregg
Mackey’s column decrying lumber rules appeared.
“Regarding Gregg Mackey’s
WoodSense article about building codes ruling out the use of local lumber for
construction – a new law has just passed in New Hampshire that in essence says
that unstamped native lumber cannot be denied by a building inspector if it
comes from a New Hampshire mill that certifies that the lumber meets #2 grade.
This legislation was passed through our state government by the joint efforts of
lumbermen, individuals and various agencies working together. The certification
process is being handled by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture with NO
“So BOCA codes be dammed!
Remember New Hampshire’s motto- ‘Live Free or Die!'”
Both New York's and New
Hampshire’s native lumber rules are efforts to end the stories of local building
inspectors who refuse to sign permits for homes built with unstamped lumber. But
there may be other ways to work on a stubborn inspector.
Bangor, Maine building
inspector Mark Heath has heard more than a few complaints of inflexible
inspectors, many from the smaller, rural communities surrounding Bangor, the
largest city in northern Maine.
“I have to tell them
(someone wanting to use native construction lumber) that it’s up to their
building inspector, he is the official for their area,” Heath said. “If a guy is
a jerk who thinks everything has to be black and white, then guess what, you got
But, even if your state
doesn’t have a native lumber rule, you may be able to work with your inspector.
The BOCA codes state that stamped lumber be used in home construction, but Heath
said there are also provisions that allow for “alternative materials,” and
nowhere does it specifically say that unstamped lumber cannot be used. It comes
down to a judgment call by an individual building inspector. In his four years
as an inspector for the City of Bangor, Heath has come across a home or two
built with unstamped lumber.
“I don’t have a problem
with it, because I have building experience,” he said. “I know good wood when I
see it, whether or not it has a stamp on it. All you have to do is apply some
So the questions remain.
Can you use your own lumber for structural building for yourself? Can you sell
your lumber as structural lumber to others? The answer to both questions is a
good solid maybe. What it takes is some education on your part. Learn your local
building codes, and look for things like alternative materials clauses in them.
Learn what New Hampshire and New York have done, and share that information with
your local building officials. Have your building inspector come out and take a
look at your operation to see the quality of lumber you produce BEFORE problems
crop up. Call the softwood lumber association covering your area and see what it
takes to become a certified grader.
Yes, it’s a lot of work,
but it’s not exactly easy getting through an old, ugly maple log either. Good
luck, and keep on sawin’!
PLACES TO CALL
NATIVE LUMBER LAWS
Department of Environmental Conservation
50 Wolf Road
Albany NY 12233-3520
Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food
PO Box 2042
Concord, NH 03302
SOFTWOOD GRADING RULES
PO Box 23145
Southern Pine Inspection Bureau
4709 Scenic Hwy
Pensacola, FL 32504
Northeastern Lumber Manufacturer's Association
272 Tuttle Road
PO Box 87A
Cumberland Center, ME 04021